The boys Sue Bird grew up with in Syosset, N.Y., all had their basketball dreams. They could pretend they were Michael Jordan or John Starks or Patrick Ewing. They could fantasize about one day wearing a Knicks uniform and being cheered by a packed house at Madison Square Garden.
"I didn't have that," said Bird, who is in her 14th WNBA season, all with the Seattle Storm. "There was no professional basketball for me in the United States when I was in grade school and middle school. I could look to the Olympics and college basketball, but that was only on TV for the Final Four.
"The WNBA changed everything," said Bird who starred at UConn. "It started in 1997, and I graduated from high school in 1998. My high school class was the first one to know during the college recruiting process to know there was the option to play professional basketball, to know that the WNBA was there and to know I better pick a school that is going to help me get to the next level. It changed everything."
Yes, it did. And when the WNBA opened its 20th season this weekend, that's its most important legacy.
Nineteen years into the league, and there has been a lot of talk about what the league has yet to do in terms of raising attendance and establishing itself as more than just a niche sport. Yet, the very fact that the league has been around for two decades providing a positive role model for all girls, not just aspiring pro players, is something with an importance that is difficult to overstate.
"Achievement and performance in America, it's hard to top that right," said Mary Joe Kane of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. "For your girls to see that, it sends a very powerful message."
Bird's new teammate, Breanna Stewart whom the Storm took out of Connecticut with the No. 1 overall pick in May, cannot remember a time when a pro women's league didn't exist. And that is exactly what the league's founders were hoping 20 years ago.
Before the WNBA, there had been at least 15 attempts to start a women's professional sports league, beginning in the 1970s, according to Val Ackerman, the WNBA's commissioner for its first eight seasons.
"We were well aware that this had been a graveyard, littered with the tombstones of women's pro leagues that had failed," Ackerman said. "So we were determined to be the league that made it this time. We knew longevity was going to be a goal."
Bird said it's great that for teammates like Stewart that this is the only world they have ever known. "And," Bird said, "that's having an impact ... because the talent level just gets better and better." — Newsday (TNS)